If Mother Nature had a Most Wanted list, I’d be in the top ten.
I am a serial killer of plants.
It’s ironic, really, because I love plants, whether indoors or out. I truly adore a lush, colorful and cared-for landscape outside. Inside other people’s houses, the presence of green leaves in all their shades and textures give me deep satisfaction and comfort.
Unfortunately, it’s all beyond me.
I read magazines and books, buy plants, and tend them—even, sometimes, according to directions. They die and the cycle repeats itself. My lone surviving houseplant is a Christmas cactus, which seems to thrive on my brand of attention—drought or flood is my method with that little guy. Usually I remember to water it when I clean the house, which is to say, infrequently. I tried my hand with an orchid once, trying to imbue it with positive vibes each day after my daily yoga practice, but, alas, it too succumbed to my black thumb.
I must’ve inherited my dad’s genes in this area. Coming from a poor, urban family, I guess there were more important things to tend to, like earning enough money for milk and the mortgage. My Italian mom’s side of the gene pool produces the gardeners. Like her mom before her, Mom had a vegetable garden when we were young. Later, with us four kids to tend, I suppose she ran out of time to keep up with the tomatoes and cucumbers and basil, but she always managed to keep a pretty yard, as well as a house filled with thriving foliage. Her sister, too, is a fantastic gardener, and my cousins inherited the gift.
But not me. In an effort to beautify my surroundings, I fill my yard with hard-to-kill varieties – black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, roses-for-dummies, daylilies, and hardy bushes that don’t seem to mind my neglect. These plants thrive in spite of me, not because of me. I would never dare try my hand at growing something any more challenging than what amounts to a very pretty weed.
Then I did, quite by accident.
My mother’s mother died in April, 2009, the last of my grandparents to leave us. On the day after the heart-wrenching funeral, when my husband I were packing to go home, my mom offered me some plants that had been given by friends as condolences. I chose a small tea rose, knowing my inability to nurture house plants. I figured this lovely, delicate bloomer was not intended to last all that long, so when it faded it wouldn’t be my fault. I’d get to enjoy it for a few months, as I mourned my grandparents, and its beauty might help as I struggled to take solace in the memories of my short time with them.
The rose hung around in my dining room, perched in front of the big, sunny windows, and, surprisingly, it bloomed for a while. When the last petals faded, I was impressed that the leaves and stem still seemed healthy. After the June rains, when I got motivated to dig a new bed in the backyard for some perennials, I added the rose. What did I have to lose?
Into the ground it went, and there it stayed, despite my erratic care. A tea rose would never have been a choice for my user-friendly garden, yet this one seemed to like where it was, perhaps comforted by a somewhat cool and wet summer. It survived, though it didn’t seem to grow very much. I didn’t mind. Every time I looked at it and marveled its very existence, I thought of my grandma.
Then one September morning, just after the kids clambered aboard the school bus to start a new year, there it was: a single bloom opening in the bright sun. My surprise would only have been greater if Jack’s beanstalk had grown in the rose’s place. Amazed, I took photos of the little flower. I blogged about it. I showed anyone who came near the house. “Look at this,” I said. “Grandma Mitzi’s rose is blooming!”
I took joy in the flower throughout the fall, figuring it would continue to live or not, and clearly I had nothing to do with the process. I had no idea what to do to ensure the rose would return in the spring, so I contented myself with enjoying it while it was with me – not unlike the way, as soon as I was old enough to realize that life is not without end, that I learned to enjoy every moment that I had with Grandma.
Winter arrived, and throughout the dark, sleepy season, Mom and her siblings set about the weighty task of cleaning out a lifetime of belongings from their parents’ house. Every time I visited, Mom offered me another keepsake; Grandma’s writing desk, the enormous quilt she made for their bed, an old-fashioned wall telephone. I brought them to my own home, still unable to quite believe I’d never see my grandparents again, never hear their voices, never receive their hugs which my body could still feel in that sense-memory way. Over time, the grief lessened, as grief does, mellowing somewhat into pangs of loss tempered by the warmth of memory. I relished the heirlooms and threatened my kids with a decade of grounding if they dared to touch any of them.
After the snow melted and the daylight lengthened, I once again took to sitting on my back porch in the early sun, delighting as always at the sight of green shoots poking through the muddy ground. As always, my joy was deep when things I’d planted on purpose began to emerge. My little back garden of perennials had survived the winter, and with any luck would continue to grow.
One morning, to my surprise, I noticed a bit of green where I thought I remembered Grandma’s rose had been (my mom admonishes me to make charts of what’s planted where, but I never do, assuming, of course, that everything is going to die anyway). As the days passed it was clear that the rose was indeed returning. The plants around it stretched out and raised their heads to the ever-warming sky. The little rose hung back, greening up but not really growing larger.
Finally, one day in early summer, the miracle repeated itself. Grandma’s rose put forth its blooms, and continued to thrive even throughout a humid and dusty-dry July when my usual watering, such as it was, was hampered by a local water ban. I never stopped being surprised to see it. Certainly, nothing I was doing was keeping it alive.
And maybe that was the key to its survival. Instead of trying to shape it to be what I wanted or thought it should be, I left it alone. Sunshine and random water fed it. The only thing I did was appreciate it and watch it grow, much the way my grandmother did with all of us, never judging us during our rebellious teen years or chastising our life choices in our twenties when we floundered, seeking direction. She watched us and advised us but didn’t tell us what to do, offering instead feathery kisses, warm hugs, and a pile of home-cooked food.
Grandma always knew how to let us grow in whatever direction we needed. Her love sustained us in times of drought and flood and storms.
Maybe that’s what’s helping this little rose along too, from me or from Grandma, or the infinite universe.
If Mother Nature had a Most Wanted list, I’d be in the top ten.